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LAHORE: Christians demonstrated in cities around Pakistan yesterday to protest after a Muslim mob torched more than 100 Christian homes following allegations of blasphemy.
More than 3,000 people rampaged through Joseph Colony, a Christian area of the eastern city of Lahore, on Saturday after allegations that a Christian had made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) three days earlier.
Around 150 people have been arrested, police said, and though no-one was killed the incident highlights the religious tensions affecting Pakistan as it prepares for a general election expected in May, following a spate of deadly attacks on the minority Shia community.
Police and locals said a drunken row between two friends was the trigger for the allegations of blasphemy, a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population are Muslim and even unproven claims can spark public violence.
In Lahore yesterday Christians protesting over the attack and demanding greater protection clashed with police, who used batons and tear gas to disperse them after they blocked a busy road, senior police officer Abdul Ghaffar Qaisarani said.
There were also minor clashes between police and protesters in Karachi and further demonstrations in Islamabad, the central city of Multan and the southwestern city of Quetta.
The Punjab government initially promised 200,000 rupees ($2,000) compensation to each family affected by the violence, but chief minister Shahbaz Sharif raised this to 500,000 rupees after visiting the scene yesterday.
“The chief minister declared that the repair work of all the houses would be completed in 72 hours,” a senior Punjab government official said.
The senior police official for the area of the attack, Multan Khan, said the trouble began with a row between Sawan Masih, a Christian sanitary worker, and his Muslim friend Shahid Imran.
“They used to sit together and drink together almost every evening. They were drunk on Wednesday when they had some arguments,” Khan told reporters on Saturday.
It was during the argument that Masih allegedly made the blasphemous remarks, Khan said, prompting Imran to report the matter to police.
Officers arrested the Christian on Friday, but this did not stop a mob assembling to attack Joseph Colony on Saturday morning.
Local resident Altaf Masih, also a sanitary worker, said “while they were drunk they had an argument over discussion on religious issues”.
Spokeswoman for Punjab police Nabila Ghazanfar said four senior officers including Khan had been removed from their posts for “negligence” and “failure to control” the mob.
Rights campaigners say Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty, are often used to settle personal disputes and should be reformed.
The legislation came under international scrutiny last year after 14-year-old Christian girl Rimsha Masih was held for three weeks in a high security prison for allegedly burning pages from the Quran. The case against her was eventually thrown out.
The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing on the attack today and summoned the chief of police in Punjab and the provincial prosecutor to appear.
Tahir Ashrafi, president of Pakistani Ulema (religious scholars) Council, condemned the attack saying Islam did not permit such violence. On Saturday Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered an inquiry into the attacks.